Remember When Torture Was Only Going to Be Used to Stop Ticking Nukes?

That fantastical scenario never materialized, but the stigma around prisoner abuse was weakened. That doesn't bother Max Boot.
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In a 2002 book review for The New Republic, Richard Posner argued that "if torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used." The "ticking time-bomb scenario" would be invoked often in successive years, mostly by conservatives opposed to an outright ban on the practice.

That history came back to me as I read a critical response to the independent report on detainee treatment described here. The report insists that the Bush Administration did torture prisoners.

The critic, Max Boot, doesn't deny it.

"I cannot help but agree with this conclusion," he wrote. "Bush administration whitewash about 'enhanced interrogation techniques' notwithstanding, many of the measures employed by interrogators on a small number of terrorism suspects, such as the use of waterboarding, did amount to torture as commonly understood."

There are a lot of weasel words in that admission (torture "as commonly understood"?). But he's come a long way. Boot now admits that torture occurred. He just isn't upset at the torturers.

"Where I part company with the self-righteous commission is in its excoriation of administration officials for ordering steps that they believed necessary to defend the United States," he writes, "and which arguably were necessary if one believes the testimony of former officials that 'enhanced interrogation techniques' were responsible for uncovering Osama bin Laden." Got that? After reading a report that details frequent torture in multiple countries over a period of years, Boot isn't horrified, or insistent that the torture was needed to, say, disarm a nuke in Times Square.

No, he's defending torturers because their tactics were "arguably" necessary "if one believes the testimony of former officials" about --- not a ticking time bomb, but "uncovering Osama bin Laden."

This despite the illegality and immorality of torture. One wonders if Boot, like fellow neoconservative John Yoo, thinks the president is permitted to crush the testicle of a child to elicit information from his parent, so long as he believes the order is necessary to defend the United States. Why not, if we're not a nation of laws, but rather a nation of beliefs held by the president about what is arguably necessary if you believe the post-facto testimony of various officials?

Torture used to be unthinkable except in a ticking time-bomb scenario. Now it is widely defended as having been justified because it "arguably" played a small part in killing a terrorist mastermind. Little wonder that, in real life, America tortured with even lesser utilitarian justification. And despite all the excesses, Boot disparages a fact-based reckoning as "self-righteous." If neoconservatives are permitted to exercise power again, I fear they'll have America slipping even farther down this slope. Their journalistic representatives certainly show no sign of remorse.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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